SOPA Markup Day 1: We Don't Understand This Bill, It Might Do Terrible Things, But Dammit, We're Passing It Now
from the how-congress-works dept
So, if you weren’t paying attention, yesterday was a marathon session of SOPA amendments… It ran for 11.5 hours, with just one tiny break, and it looks like they didn’t even get through half of the amendments. I’ll get into some more details in a bit, but honestly the single best description of the insanity of these hearings came from The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri, who called them “nightmarish.”
If this were surgery, the patient would have run out screaming a long time ago. But this is like a group of well-intentioned amateurs getting together to perform heart surgery on a patient incapable of moving. ?We hear from the motion picture industry that heart surgery is what?s required,? they say cheerily. ?We?re not going to cut the good valves, just the bad ? neurons, or whatever you call those durn thingies.?
This is terrifying to watch. It would be amusing ? there?s nothing like people who did not grow up with the Internet attempting to ask questions about technology very slowly and stumbling over words like ?server? and ?service? when you want an easy laugh. Except that this time, the joke?s on us.
That really describes the situation perfectly. Over and over again the people in favor of this bill flat out admitted that they didn’t understand the technology — and when the various people opposed to it asked why don’t they get some experts in to answer some questions, the supporters had no credible response. The DNS and security aspects were completely brushed aside. As Rep. Jason Chaffetz (who is fighting the good fight against this) pointed out repeatedly, there’s simply no reason to rush this bill when there are such widespread concerns about it and no one has taken the time to get the answers to key questions.
But the supporters of the bill — mainly Reps. Lamar Smith, Bob Goodlatte and Mel Watt — simply wanted to push forward at all costs. They rejected every amendment raised, except two minor ones (we’ll get to that in a minute). Amazingly they rejected all sorts of quite reasonable suggestions — while complaining that those opposed to the bill never had any suggestions to fix it! And yet when those actual proposals were brought up, they were rejected out of hand. It really was pretty disgusting. Goodlatte’s responses struck me as particularly inane. He kept rejecting amendments because he feared that the amendment could be abused. The fact that most of those amendments were to prevent the much wider scale abuses guaranteed under SOPA never seemed to occur to him.
In fact, supporters of the bill regularly used arguments that actually could have been turned around on them. They refused an amendment from Rep. Darrell Issa to limit the powers of the bill to those who actually were in the US, saying that it would set a bad precedent for countries like China… and this came just after they were totally outraged that anyone might think that the entire bill itself sets a bad precedent for countries like China. The disingenuous bullshit was really ridiculous.
Rep. Watt was particularly keen to display his own ignorance. He regularly admitted that he wasn’t very knowledgeable on technology — which should have been a reason to recuse himself or to at least ask for more info from experts. Instead, he just insisted that all of the technical experts were simply wrong. Based on what? Nothing. How does someone like Watt get elected when he appears to want to regulate the internet based on pure faith and against what every single expert has said? It’s downright scary.
Later, Watt angrily rejected an amendment to clarify some language to make sure it was limited — by saying that he believed the language already said what the amendment added. If that’s true, why reject the amendment? All it would do is make the intent clear. Instead, he said no. That makes no sense at all.
What was clear, from the beginning, was that the SOPA supporters were not there in good faith. They had no intention of listening to reasonable suggestions to fix the bill, and stuck together as a bloc to reject pretty much all of them — even while admitting their own ignorance. The really sad part was when Goodlatte tried to equate the views of a couple of policy analysts who get money from the entertainment industry, with the views of nearly 100 independent internet engineers who have pointed out how problematic SOPA really would be. Watt and others tried to pretend that because each side could turn up someone who would say something that those views were equal. It’s the insane Congressional equivalent of “he-said/she-said” journalism, where you “hear” both sides, but never seek out the truth. That’s nuts.
The simple fact is that nearly every single actual credible internet engineer has come out against these bills. There isn’t an equivalence where each side can turn up a few people. The scales are completely weighted down against the bills… and many of those people have no associations whatsoever — even as SOPA defenders insisted that only “Google” experts were against the bill. Stewart Baker isn’t speaking for Google. Sandia National Labs isn’t speaking for Google.
The real insanity is that supporters of the bill are rushing forward just because they want to pass “something,” and they don’t seem to care about the consequences.
As for the two amendments that did pass, one was to say that if you “knowingly misrepresented” a claim on a site, you had to pay attorneys’ fees. Of course, “knowingly misrepresent” is a very, very high bar that will almost never be met. A similar amendment by Rep. Chaffetz that would also require fees if you failed to get an injunction in court was rejected, because SOPA supporters were worried this would scare people off. As Chaffetz pointed out: that’s the whole point. It would scare off those who don’t have strong, legitimate claims.
The other amendment that passed right at the end, was from Rep. Jared Polis, requiring the State Department to do a study on the eventual impacts of SOPA. That doesn’t change the law really. It just will at least let people check back in on the damage it does a couple years from now.
A few other key points:
- Huge kudos to Reps. Issa, Lofgren, Chaffetz and Polis, who combined to repeatedly point out the problems of the bill and to argue forcefully and compellingly about why we needed to fix these problems. That much of the rest of the Committee ignored these concerns, played them down, or rejected them for silly or nonsense reasons, is really just a statement on the sad state of Congress today.
- I heard from sources that a big time content industry lobbyist was seen hanging out in the “members only” area during the session. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on, then you’re not paying attention.
- There was a bizarre elementary school-like fight that went on at one point. Rep. Steve King tweeted early on:
We are debating the Stop Online Piracy Act and Shiela Jackson has so bored me that I’m killing time by surfing the Internet.
Rep. Jackson-Lee found out about this and announced that she was “offended,” at which point it seemed like a bunch of these old clueless men started arguing about how inappropriate it was for her to say she was offended. The whole session had to pause while they talked to a “parliamentarian” about whether it was okay to use the term “offended,” eventually leading Jackson-Lee to change her statement. Yeah. These are the people in charge of making our laws. Scary.
- With the session going on for 11.5 hours, there was a short break for lunch, but for dinner Rep. Lamar Smith offered “four kinds of pizza,” but apparently only for other members. Staffers had to sit and starve. Nice of them, huh?
All in all, the process should leave you frightened for our country. This was not an attempt to fix a broken law. It was an attempt to please some Hollywood funders at the expense of innovation and jobs. It’s insanity.
That said… if you want to watch more of it today, tune in either at the Judiciary website or the KeepTheWebOpen site and make sure you have a pillow nearby for when you want to bang your head on the desk or wall. Once again, I’ll be live-tweeting some of the hearing (don’t think I can make all of it) from my personal Twitter account.